Monday, July 8, 2013

A science of language?

A large part of the fascination which language holds for many is that it is one of the key markers of our humanity. Language is at the heart of human culture and human consciousness. Tense and aspect mark our sense of time, grammatical mood our sense of possibility, personal and possessive pronouns our very sense of identity and how we see ourselves as relating to other people and things.

Partly because language is an inextricable and defining part of us – and at once social and individual – it is impossible to clearly define a science of language in the way most other sciences can be defined.

To what extent should the study of language be subsumed into psychology and neuroscience? Language is behaviour, and the human language faculty can only be said to be understood to the extent that the neurological processes which drive it are known.

On the other hand, language is also a cultural object which can be studied in its own right, both structurally and historically.

It's hardly surprising, then, that, since its rise to prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries, linguistics has, as sciences go, been unusually riven by competing frameworks and approaches, and these divisions have, if anything, increased over time. (Though I sometimes wonder how different things might have been if the later-20th century's most prominent linguist had not been such a relentless intellectual warrier and contrarian!)

Ultimately, the divisions between the sciences are merely for practical and administrative purposes: the quality – and worthwhileness – of research is not generally determined by discipline-specific but rather by more general criteria.

But I don't want to get into an abstract discussion about the unity of science or related matters. I really just wanted to make the point that language represents not so much a subject area as a number of interrelated subject areas. And, because the phenomenon of language can be approached from very different directions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pull all these perspectives – and the knowledge implicit in them – together.

Perhaps, then, the best we can do is to focus on specific questions which may happen to relate to language in one way or another and to renounce as unrealistic the desire for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of language per se.

I'll finish by mentioning a couple of language-related topics which I have been thinking about lately.

Last month I referred to the ideas of Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley on culture-driven gene evolution. The work of Fisher and others has shown that the FOXP2 gene has a crucial role to play in human linguistic abilities. The gene occurs in other species in slightly different forms and it plays various roles. Interestingly, it has been shown to play a key role in vocal expression in both birds (canaries and finches) and chimpanzees as well as in humans. Neanderthals are now believed to have had exactly the same form of the FOXP2 gene as modern humans.

I can't help thinking that the question of the origin of language retains its fascination in part because it promises to reveal something important about who we are and where we came from.

This is, I think, largely an illusion based on the idea that the abrupt discontinuity we see between ourselves and our nearest relatives (chimpanzees) always was. But intermediate forms did exist (until relatively recently, in fact).

In practice, I think we tend to assume, consciously or unconsciously, that our species has an essence.

It hasn't. Nonetheless, the development of human language as we know it does mark a clear historical and cultural discontinuity.

On a more practical note, I have also been thinking about the reputed benefits of bilingualism. It has been claimed, for instance, that bilingualism can delay the onset of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease by about five years. I have some reservations about the significance of these claims. More another time.